Book review: The Shadow Land

The Shadow LandThe Shadow Land
by Elizabeth Kostova
Ballantine Books
Genre: Historical Fiction
512 pages

Elizabeth Kostova’s writing is powerful and beautiful. It irresistibly grabs you, while captivating you with its poetic prose. I experienced that first in The Historian, and then, in a somewhat different style, in The Swan Thieves. She goes back to the style of The Historian with The Shadow Land.

The reader travels a lot in The Historian, following the characters in a fascinating quest. Bulgaria is featured there, but now, The Shadow Land is mostly set in that country.
There’s a story, even a mystery, with endearing characters, but for me, the main character of the book is definitely Bulgaria itself, with its majestic landscapes, and dark and troubled history.
The author traveled to that country in her youth. She fell under its charm and knew that one day, she would  write a whole book on it.

The plot is simple:
Alexandra Boyd, a young American woman, decided to go to Bulgaria, to find healing after the disappearance of her dear brother (Bulgaria was a special connection between them). When she arrives to Sofia, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and realizes too late that she accidentally kept one of their bags. When she opens it, to see if she could find the identity of the owners and return them their belonging, she realizes it’s an urn containing with human ashes.
The whole book is her quest to find the owners in order to return them the urn, and to know more about the life of the deceased.

On the way, she makes friends and discovers a world very different from her own back in the US. She also realizes that the horrors of Bulgarian history are not healed yet, and they could lead to major dangers for herself as well.

I was a bit frustrated at first, when I realized the plot pertaining to her brother fizzled out. But once in Bulgaria, I was totally captivated by the country (though I’m not sure it’s safe enough to travel there even today), especially by its stunning landscapes, so well evoked by Kostova.
Her historical descriptions are just as powerful – warning: tough passages!

My only regret for this book is that I didn’t dive in it as soon as I received it, but instead, for whatever reasons, let it collect some dust on my bookshelf for a while.  If you have loved The Historian, or want to know more about Bulgaria, you absolutely need to read The Shadow Land.

VERDICT:  With hauntingly beautiful prose accompanying a suspenseful plot, Kostova captures the soul of Bulgaria: both its enchanting landscape and its horrifying past, ready to resurface at any moment.

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What’s your favorite book about/set in Bulgaria?

In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this book free of charge from the publisher. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.


10 thoughts on “Book review: The Shadow Land

  1. Great review Emma! I too loved The Shadow Land. I felt she created a story that fell somewhere between The Historian and The Swan Thieves, with all the history but also all the (rightfully) troubled people. Someday I want to reread them all.


  2. Great review! Very helpful and interesting recommendation. I’ve ‘almost’ read The Historian a few times but hesitated because of the “tough passages” that book also contains. I agree on her beautiful prose style. This book The Shadow Land appeals to me very much. Can I start with this one if I have not read The Historian?
    I also wanted to recommend to you James Michener’s Poland, a panoramic historical narrative lying somewhere between straight history and a novel. Beautifully and coherently written, especially in explaining the complicated thread of political rule over the land of the Polish people. I once thought of Michener as an old fashioned writer of bestsellers that became films, but his books are much better than this reputation.


    • Both books are totally independent. Funny, I don’t remember the ‘tough passages’ in The Historian! Alas, I read it before seriously blogging, so I didn’t really take note, and don’t remember many details of it.
      Thanks for the Michener recommendation. I’m not sure though I’ll launch into a 600 page multi-generational saga. It’s usually not my cup of tea. But I haven’t read much about Poland, so that could be an idea


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